Chinese antiques net US$7.3m at Sotheby's, amid 18th-century vase hammered 21 times its low estimate

During this season’s Asia Week New York, Sotheby’s Important Chinese Art Sale produced favourable results. Amongst 216 lots offered, 165 lots were sold – which amassed US$7.3 million dollars in total.

Leading the sale was an 18th-century white jade ‘dragon’ vase, which fetched US$756,000 dollars with buyer’s premium. However, a group of lots were the biggest surprises, as they were hammered far beyond expectations. For example, a 12th- to 13th-century guan hexafoil tripod censer, and an 18th-century Imperial iron red ‘dragon’ vase, the hammer was dropped at 5.4 and 21 times their low estimates.

Lot 283 | White Jade 'Dragon' Vase

Created during Qianlong period (1736-1795)
Height: 18.1 cm

  • Private Collection, acquired by 1925
  • Christie's London, 14th May 2012, Lot 80 (Sold: £505,250)
  • Property from the Morgan Foundation Collection

Estimate: US$800,000 – 1,200,000
Hammer Price: US$600,000
Sold: US$756,000

In 2012, the white jade bottle was offered at Christie's London. Estimated between £60,000 and 80,000 pounds, it garnered £505,250 pounds (around US$800,000 dollars at the time). During this year's auction, auctioneer Henry Howard-Sneyd started the bidding at US$500,000 dollars and the hammer was dropped at US$600,000 dollars. In the end, it garnered US$756,000 dollars with buyer's premium.

Exquisitely carved, the present vase is a testament to the technical perfection achieved by the imperial workshops during the reign of the Qianlong Emperor. The five-clawed dragons carved on each side, amidst scrolling clouds and enclosed within central medallions, are juxtaposed with the vase’s refined and simple form, subtly alluding to the Qianlong Emperor's imperial authority.

Similar examples are found at the National Palace Museum, Taipei (left) and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York (right)

During the Qianlong period, the production of imperial jade carvings in China soared to new heights. Through successful territorial expansion, political stability and strong economic growth, the Empire acquired an unprecedented amount of wealth, and the imperial workshops recruited the best artisans to cater to the increasing demands of the Emperor and the court.

In 1759, the Qing Empire's victory over the Dzungar and Muslim rebellions marked a pivotal point in the production of jade carvings. The victories allowed access to the jade-rich territories in Khotan and Yarkant, where the geological setting was favourable for the formation of high-quality nephrite. Khotan jade, renowned for its translucency and hardiness, was highly prized. The Emperor’s passion for jade and the court’s access to unprecedented quantities of the raw material ushered in a new age of jade carving, pushing the craftsmen’s technical and creative capacities to new heights.

There are two similar examples at the National Palace Museum, Taipei and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

Lot 226 | ‘Guan’ Hexafoil Tripod Censer

Created during Southern Song dynasty (1127-1279)
Width: 11 cm

  • The Mount Trust Collection
  • Christie's London, 19th April 1983, lot 35
  • China House of Arts, New York

Estimate: US$50,000 – 70,000
Hammer Price: US$270,000  
Sold: US$390,600

Guan yao, the fabled ‘official ware’ specially created for the Imperial court of the Southern Song (1127-1279) in Hangzhou, south China, is amongst the most desirable and certainly one of the rarest types of Chinese ceramics. Its elegance and simplicity belie its technical sophistication, and showcase Chinese potters at the height of their ingenuity, technical capabilities and aesthetic vision.

When the Southern Song court looked to commission a new official ware, the forms of archaic ritual bronzes or jades provided the most important inspiration. During this time, archaic bronzes and jades began to be excavated, researched and collected as symbols and witnesses of a prosperous era of Chinese history, due to their central function in important state rituals in antiquity.

The present incense burner is not directly copied, but based on an archaic bronze li vessel. Its exquisite glaze along with its smooth pleasing texture, milky-blue tint and subtle gloss was achieved through gradual application of multiple layers and presumably successive firings. The dark blackish-brown body, visible on the feet, adds depth to the glaze and grandeur to the whole object – subtly accentuating its shape.

Lot 213 | Gilt Decorated Famille Rose Turquoise Ground Vase

Seal mark and of the Qianlong period (1736-1795)
Height: 26.7 cm

  • Christie's New York, 3rd June 1988, Lot 304

Estimate: US$250,000 – 350,000
Hammer Price: US$270,000
Sold: US$340,200

Meticulously painted with mirroring chilongs (Chinese mythical dragons) at its neck amidst a turquoise-blue ground, the present vase demonstrates the playful emulations that were the result of technical mastery and experimentation at the imperial workshops during the Qianlong period (1736-1795). The vase belongs to a group of vessels commissioned by the Qianlong Emperor in imitation of cloisonne enamel.

He was fond of cloisonne enamel work, which he revived on a grand scale after a period of disregard under the Yongzheng Emperor (1722-1735). Cloisonne-imitation works were commissioned in both enamelled porcelain – such as the present vase, and copper, where the wires separating the cloisons of different colours were complemented by finely painted golden lines.

Although the idea of imitating other materials through porcelain existed before the 18th century, Qianlong period craftsmen advanced the technique to a new level – sometimes creating trompe l'oeil works virtually indistinguishable from the actual medium they were simulating.

Lot 376 | Iron Red ‘Dragon’ Meiping

Created during the Yongzheng (1722-1735) / Qianlong period (1736-1795)
Height: 33.6 cm
Estimate: US$12,000 – 15,000
Hammer Price: US$260,000
Sold: US$327,600

Estimated between US$12,000 and 15,000 dollars, this lot was enthusiastically bid. The hammer was dropped at US$260,000 – more than 21 times its low estimate. In the end, it gathered US$327,600 dollars with buyer’s premium.

Dynamically painted with nine dragons in iron-red enamel, this rare vase symbolises the Emperor’s imperial power. The unusual composition of the dragons, linked by their tails or claws, is reminiscent of a group of yellow-ground iron-red decorated bowls produced during the Yongzheng (1722-1735) and Qianlong periods (1736-1795).

Chinese ceramics porcelain come in a range of colours – such as red, yellow, green and blue. In this case, this iron red vase uses iron oxide as a colorant. Red iron oxide is the most common colorant in ceramics and has the highest amount of iron. It is available commercially as a soft and fine powder made by grinding ore material or heat processing. During firing, the irons normally decompose and produce similar colours in glazes and clay bodies – available in many different shades from a bright, light red to a deep, red maroon.

Other highlight lots:

Lot 266 | Gilt Lacquered Wood Figure of Guanyin

Created during Song (960-1279) / Jin dynasty (1115-1234)
Height: 67.7 cm

  • J.C. Moreau-Gobard, Paris
  • C.T. Loo & Cie., Paris, 26th June 1964
  • Collection of J.J. Klejman (1906-1995), and thence by descent

Estimate: US$100,000 – 150,000
Hammer Price: US$170,000
Sold: US$214,200

Lot 217 | Small Lobed Doucai ‘Three Friends of Winter’ Bottle Vase

Seal mark and of the Yongzheng period (1722-1735)
Height: 10.5 cm

  • Japanese Private Collection (by repute)
  • Hong Kong Private Collection

Estimate: US$30,000 – 50,000
Hammer Price: US$150,000
Sold: US$189,000

Lot 261 | Gilt Silver Filigree 'Phoenix' Crown

Created during the Liao dynasty (916-1125 CE)
Height: 30.4 cm

  • Gisele Croes, Brussels, 2005
  • Property from the Collection of Abolala Soudavar

Estimate: US$150,000 – 200,000
Hammer Price: US$150,000
Sold: US$189,000

Lot 279 | Inscribed Pale Celadon Jade 'Luohan' Boulder

Seal mark and of the Qianlong period (1736-1795), dated dingchou year corresponding to 1757
Height: 21 cm

  • Sotheby's New York, 19th-20th October 1988, Lot 259
  • Property from an American Private Collection

Estimate: US$60,000 – 80,000
Hammer Price: US$140,000
Sold: US$176,400

Lot 202 | Blue and White 'Dragon' Vase

Seal mark and of the Zhengde period (1505-1521)
Diameter: 24.2 cm

  • Christie's London, 6th June 1994, Lot 117
  • Property from the Collection of Albert Y.P. and Sara K.S. Lee

Estimate: US$100,000 – 150,000
Hammer Price: US$130,000
Sold: US$163,800

Lot 379 | Copper Red and Underglaze Blue 'Dragon' Meiping 

Seal mark and of the Qianlong period (1736-1795)
Height: 21.6 cm 
Estimate: US$30,000 – 50,000
Hammer Price: US$120,000
Sold: US$151,200

Auction Details:

Auction House: Sotheby’s New York
Sale: Important Chinese Art
Date and Time: 21 September 2022
Number of lots: 216
Sold: 165
Unsold: 51
Sale Rate: 76.3%
Sale Total: US$7,394,562